In 2016, why do so many people disdain the science fiction and fantasy genres*?
This is a question my daughter often asks me. She’s 21 now (a fact which feel like both science fiction and fantasy, some days) and has long been mystified by people who dismiss her preferred stories.
It’s a question I used to ask myself, back in the 20th century. As a kid I didn’t understand why so many of my peers and elders sneered at library books with rocket ships on the cover. As an adult I still see this. One literature professor circa 1999 told me – with pride – how he successfully blocked at attempt to get Ray Bradbury to speak on his campus. Ray Bradbury!
The question’s different now, in part because we’ve living in a new century clearly marked by science fiction features: flying killer robots, supercomputers in our hands, exoplanets popping up all over the place, social media users and computer hackers influencing geopolitics, and so on. I keep telling folks that only by reading (or watching, or listening to) science fiction can they be prepared for the 21st century.
It’s easy to find examples of genre disdain, so I’ll only mention a couple. Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast, for instance, loves to mock just about any trace of sf because it’s sf.They often have to import experts to discuss genre topics. During their review of Gravity (2013) the hosts literally giggle anytime they mention the word “space”. Because, you know, space! They dismissed Newt Gingrinch’s call to mine the moon because, see, it’s the moon. Nobody would seriously pay attention to space exploration, right?
More entertaining is the New York Times’ hilarious first review of Game of Thrones, which mocks the show at length for being sexist, too complicated, unworthy of HBO. It’s just too, too fantasy. (More on this in a few paragraphs)
A very recent example is this Mother Jones headline:
Trump’s Campaign CEO Ran a Secretive Sci-Fi Project in the Arizona Desert
Which is a very odd headline, in fact. The article is about a science project, a test of humans’ capacity to survive in an enclosed, self-sustaining ecosystem. The criticisms of Bannon have nothing to do with sf; instead, they’re about charges of being mean to people, or being hypocritical. Indeed, it’s a very real-world article.
The only mention of sf – one only, in the entire piece – is to deny science fiction’s role: “The original Biosphere project, completed in 1991 by a company called Space Biosphere Ventures and funded by a Texas billionaire named Edward Bass, was an attempt to turn science fiction into reality.” Yet the Mother Jones editorial staff (I assume it was them, and not the article’s author) slapped the derogatory “sci-fi” form of “science fiction” into the title because…. it’s funnier, somehow…? I don’t recall any sf themes coming out of the Trump campaign.
So why the disdain for sf in 2016?
Let me raise some likely explanations, then ask what you all think.
Elitism of taste Many reader can recall being told that science fiction, fantasy, or horror were not “real literature”. A subset of realistic literature is, in fact, real lit. To dismiss the genre is to identify and elevate one’s own taste. It’s almost an act of virtue signaling.
Does sf’s recent popularity help feed this elite dislike? Fantasy has become mainstream, with the huge successes of the Lord of the Rings films and Game of Thrones. Science fiction repeatedly appears in movies and the best-seller lists. Star Trek and Star Wars franchises sprawl across society. Hating sf now has the virtue of being rebellious and nonconformist.
Criticism of quality This is an old one, the argument that science fiction and fantasy just aren’t well written. It’s very easy to counter, so if you need to, here are the responses:
- Point to brilliantly written sf. Go back to Wells and Stapledon, or to more recent writers like Russ, LeGuin, Delany, or to new stars like Mieville and Leckie.
- Identify the huge majority of badly-written non-genre fiction. As a former bookseller I have many authors in mind, and used to cite Danielle Steele as a stand-in. Dan Brown is a good one, too.
- Note that sf is often received as a genre of ideas, and it’s foolish to dismiss that aspect.
Rarely can a critic stand up to these responses, largely because, like the censors in Ray Bradbury’s “Usher II”, they just haven’t read that much of what they hate.
The charge of escapism I must have been in 4th grade when I first heard this criticism of sf. “It’s not about the real world,” they (teacher? librarian? random adult? older kid?) explained. “It’s… escapist.”
It’s a very weird charge. It’s based on a narrow, almost social realist sense of art, that it must only depict the here-and-now. This rules out a large segment of what many would call literature, the works that prominently feature monsters, non-currently-worshipped gods, and the landscape of dreams. Think of the Illiad, or Beowulf, or the Ring Cycle, or Orlando.
This charge can rule out historical fiction, which can be, as Kim Stanley Robinson argues, as escapist as science fiction. Maybe more so:
“[Historical novelists] tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways… A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is.”
This last point relies on a standard observation from literary criticism, that fantasy and science fiction are always speaking about their present situation.
There’s a strong anti-imagination element to this criticism of the genre. We could reach back to Plato’s dislike of poets for encouraging us to see things that aren’t real. Does the current disdain for sf really have such ancient roots?
There’s also a strange, even sinister politics in criticizing reading (or watching, or listening, or playing) for escapism. It’s based on a desire to keep people in the here and now, a kind of surveillance of the imagination. What’s behind that overseer’s urge?
Perceived gender exclusivity Around 2006 I gave a workshop as an elite liberal arts college in New England. During conversation with an anthropologist, I asked her if she’d read Ursula LeGuin, because of her anthropological themes, and her parents being famous anthro – The prof stopped me. “I’m a girl,” explained this middle-aged and extremely well educated woman, “and I don’t read science fiction.” I started to mention something of the sociology of sf readers, but didn’t make much headway, since it was way off topic for why I was there that day.
I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t and hasn’t been sexism in science fiction and fantasy. Obviously there is and has been. But these criticisms aren’t based on that charge. It’s not “I don’t read sf because it’s sexist”, but “sf isn’t for women.”
Perhaps this is an American problem. We’ve created a horrendous socialization of science, setting up numerous STEM fields as mostly-male. To the extent that people see sf as about STEM, maybe Americans sort out their story preferences accordingly.
In that New York Times rebuke to Game of Thrones I mentioned earlier, the author (Ginia Bellafante) argues that the show should only appeal to males. “all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.” A justifiable fear. No woman alive.
Bellafante goes on:
While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
Obviously subsequent history puts the lie to this, as Game of Thrones has become epically popular across the gender divide. But when the author typed this column, fantasy’s popularity was well known in the present day. Fantasy fandom has featured huge numbers of women readers and writers for decades! And some writers responded to Bellafante right away (for example).
Was this just a slip of the column, or a sign of personal taste? Or did Bellafante reveal another reason for the hatred of sf?
Market segmentation The age of the internet has expanded our media opportunities immensely. I like seeing which sub-subcategories Netflix generates for me (I think one was “1970s British cynical tv comedies”). One way we’ve responded is to burrow into our niches and subdomains (cf the filter bubble and echo chamber concepts). So perhaps people have selected themselves out of the sf world and live only among their anti-genre ilk. That keeps their disdain fresh and socially supported, without having to confront sff.
Back to Gina Bellafante, who defended her review thusly:
I realize that there are women who love fantasy, but I don’t know any and that is the truth: I don’t know any. At the same time, I am sure that there are fantasy fans out there who may not know a single person who worships at the altar of quietly hewn domestic novels or celebrates the films of Nicole Holofcener or is engrossed by reruns of “House.”
“I don’t know any… I don’t know any.” She saw fit to repeat that three times in two columns. I’m reminded of Pauline Kael’s line about not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon. Maybe anti-sf is now a social segment, or a lifestyle.
Or consider this British literary authority, in that article about K.S. Robinson:
John Mullan, Naughtie’s fellow judge for this year’s prize and professor of English at University College London, said that he “was not aware of science fiction,” arguing that science fiction has become a “self-enclosed world”.
“When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres,” he said, but now “it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.”
I like how that last point goes against my point about sf being more popular than ever before. “We’re not isolated; *you* are the isolated one, in your sub-standard genre ghetto! weirdos!”
Taken together, I think there’s a mix of these reasons, culminating on the social exclusion one. Hating sf is a social practice, like being punk in the early 1980s or homesteading in the 21st century. It’s a mix of taste, accumulated decisions, social reinforcement, and accreted attitude. Disdaining sf signals one’s style, politics, and taste, much like any socially connected fashion.
As the 21st century progresses further into science fiction territory and fantasy continues to win an ever-large audience, hating those genres will become ever sharper, more insurgent, stranger, and more inappropriate to the times, like flying the Confederate battle flag.
What do you think? What’s your experience of anti-sf disdain?
*I’m not going to get into defining science fiction or fantasy here.
I’m also excluding horror, because it’s mutated into something very different now. I’d like to address horror in a separate post later on.